Exercise Doesn't Worsen Asthma

Review Finds Some Benefits, Little Harm

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 21, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 21, 2005 -- Exercise can trigger asthma symptoms, but that doesn't mean that people with asthma shouldn't exercise, a comprehensive new review shows.

Researchers concluded that just like everyone else, people with asthma benefit from regular exercise. Asthmatics who exercised had better cardiopulmonary fitness, which meant they could take in more oxygen and transfer more air in and out of their lungs.

"Most people with asthma can exercise just like other people, provided they take some precautions," researcher Felix S. Ram, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.

Asthma Shouldn't Prohibit Exercise

Long gone are the days when kids with asthma sat out gym class and doctors advised their asthma patients to avoid strenuous sports.

In fact, many elite athletes, including more than a few Olympic champions, have asthma, says New York asthma and allergy specialist Clifford Bassett, MD, of the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bassett is a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

"The figures I saw from [the 2000 summer games in] Sydney indicated that as many as 17% had a history of asthma," Bassett tells WebMD.

But he says even today, patients with asthma may be told to limit their activities by physicians who don't fully understand the condition.

"When asthma is well controlled, exercise isn't a problem," he says. "But the key is keeping it under control."

No Harm, Some Benefit

Exercise-induced asthma symptoms can include wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, chest pain, and short-term or prolonged shortness of breath.

The newly published review included 13 studies on asthma and exercise that included 455 patients. Physical training was defined as whole-body exercise of at least 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic training, two to three times a week, over a minimum of four weeks.

The research was reported by investigators with the Cochrane Collaborative, an international, nonprofit organization that conducts systematic reviews of current medical practices. It is published in the latest issue of The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Regular exercise was found to have no effect on resting lung function or the total number of days that the participants reported wheezing.

The researchers concluded, however, that regular exercise can increase oxygen intake by up to 20%. It also improves overall fitness and the transfer of air in and out of the lungs.

Planning Ahead

While it is clear that exercise can trigger asthma symptoms, the risk can be minimized by planning ahead, Bassett and Ram agree.

Asthmatics with a history of exercise-induced symptoms should use a short-acting inhaler 10 to 15 minutes before they work out, Bassett says. An example of such an inhaler would be an albuterol inhaler, which also comes under the names Proventil or Ventolin.

He also recommends:

  • Warming up for 10 or 15 minutes before exercising to full capacity.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids, especially when exercising in the heat. A good rule of thumb is to drink 8 ounces of water before beginning exercise and then 8 ounces every 30 minutes while exercising.
  • Cooling down slowly, rather than stopping exercise abruptly.
  • Stopping the activity if respiratory symptoms occur.

And asthma patients who have not exercised regularly in the past but want to start should see their doctor first, Bassett says.

"They should have their lung function tested to determine their exercise tolerance," he adds.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Ram, F.S., The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2005; issue 4. Flex S. Ram, MD, PhD, senior lecturer in clinical pharmacology, School of Health Sciences, Massey University-Albany, Auckland, New Zealand. Clifford Bassett, MD, public education committee, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology; allergy and asthma specialist, The Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y.
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